This article by German Ambassador to Israel Andreas Michaelis on Yom HaShoah, the Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day, was published in the Jüdische Allgemeine newspaper on 19 April 2012.
Today, 19 April, is remembrance day in Israel for the millions who died in the Holocaust. For a moment, public life comes to a standstill. The country stands in silence – commemorating the men, women and children who were lost. The Shoah, in which millions were murdered, appears unimaginable – and yet human beings really intended that horror, planned it and made it a reality.
High-ranking German officials and military officers gather in a villa on the shores of the Wannsee near Berlin in January 1942 to plan how the genocide of Europe’s Jews was to be organized. Six million Jews were murdered by the Germans and their accomplices. Those German killers are not strangers to us; they were alive in our parents’ and grandparents’ generation.
“Responsibility for the Shoah is part of our German identity” – that is how Federal President Horst Köhler put it when he spoke in the Knesset in 2005. As German Ambassador to Israel, I feel a special responsibility to keep the memory of the Shoah alive, particularly for the younger generation.
Last year we heard of the death here in Israel of Noach Flug, who as a young man had survived the death march from Auschwitz. Flug was president of the International Auschwitz Committee for many years, and his work to prevent history being forgotten was truly impressive. Memory, he argued, “has no expiry date, and you cannot decree that it has been dealt with or brought to a conclusion”.
And yet, it is becoming more difficult to keep the memory of the Shoah alive. That’s what crossed my mind when I stood by Noach Flug’s grave during his funeral. His loss was a painful reminder that, in Israel and all around the world, there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors living among us, fewer people who can share personal memories of the Shoah with the generations born after them.
Many young Germans know about the crimes perpetrated against the Jews of Europe. They approach the issues with sensitivity, openness and a sense of responsibility. Nonetheless, the past is becoming more distant for them. At the same time, this generation’s relationship with the Shoah is changing, as the proportion of Germans with a migrant background grows: they, after all, have no family memories of what happened.
The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict is changing the way people, including Germans, see Israel. There are therefore Germans who aren’t automatically well disposed towards the State of Israel, and that is something we shouldn’t ignore or suppress. That’s why we need to emphasize the special nature of German-Israeli relations, particularly in response to critical voices raised in our country. Only by first understanding and acknowledging our special relationship with Israel can Germans even begin to make responsible judgements regarding political developments in the Middle East.
All this makes exchange among young Israelis and Germans especially crucial. Around 11,000 young people take part in exchange programmes each year. We have Israeli interns working in the German Bundestag and German volunteers looking after patients in Israeli care homes.
Since last summer, students from Weimar and Jerusalem have been making music together in a new youth orchestra. At the start of this year, the German Government founded a new long-term programme to collaborate on Holocaust education with the Yad Vashem Remembrance Authority.
Politically, Germany and Israel have developed a deep friendship. The horrific rift which our history records makes that friendship precious and unique. It isn’t an empty phrase when we say that protecting Israel’s right to exist is one of Germany’s fundamental principles as a state. The development of our relations is something that touches me at a very personal level. When I first worked in Israel some 20 years ago, I initially felt uneasy speaking German to my children in the supermarket.
It is only through the numerous friendships I have been lucky enough to make in Israel that this uneasiness has lifted. I now increasingly find that Germans in Israel are received with spontaneity, interest, warmth and friendliness. Considering the horrors of the past, this is teaching us Germans to feel humbled and grateful.
As the author Amos Oz once predicted, relations between Jews and Germans will never be normal. “And they shouldn’t be normal,” he said, “They should be intense.” I am touched by that intensity every day.